Sunday, January 20, 2008

What to Do - and Not Do Regarding Kids and Your Divorce

Paul Wanio, PhD, LMFT

Once you've had the initial conversation telling your children about the impending separation or divorce, your responsibilities are far from over. There must be a continuous open dialogue as questions and issues come up. Some of the most important concepts to discuss with your child are:

[ ] Answer questions appropriately and compassionately, and show
optimism. ("Things may be difficult now, but they will get better,
one day at a time.")

[ ] Avoid any unnecessary questioning or probing regarding the other
parent's life, or talk that would create loyalty conflicts for your child.
(Example: "I don't want you to feel like you're betraying your
father/mother or like you're spying, but tell me....")

[ ] To control your child, never say that you are leaving or that because
of your child's misbehavior is why the other parent left. And never use
fear as a method of discipline or control. (Negative consequences? Yes.
Fear? No.)

[ ] Be careful not to give hope of reconciliation to your child. This only
prolongs confusion, plays havoc with your child's emotions and may lead
to more behavior problems.

[ ] Don't "label" your child (a liar, brat, bad, problemed) or say, "You're just like
your mother/father." Children tend to become what they are labeled,
or fear that if they are "just like Mom/Dad," then maybe you could leave
them too.

[ ] If you are moving to a new home with your child, walk around the
neighborhood together, talk and show him/her where everything is. If you
do not have custody, show your child where he/she can have a special
place or room to put belongings when staying over. A sense of belonging
is important in both homes.

[ ] Create a new family context and concept. ("I know that's how it use to be
when Mommy and Daddy were together, but things are different now and
here is what I want....")

[ ] Explain how your child is now part of two house-holds or families and what
some of the positive aspects to this can be (more friends, double holiday
celebrations, new experiences, less fighting, etc.). Explain your system
of doing things while conveying respect for compliance with the other
parent's way of doing things. Mutual support is better than undermining
each other as parents. You can work out disagreements with the other
parent in private.

[ ] Be careful not to introduce too many changes at once or too quickly.
Stability is important.

[ ] Encourage communication between your child and the other parent
without pushing it, especially if you sense a problem between them that
needs to be talked about. At times, you may have to speak up on your
child's behalf.
[ ] Allow some privacy and "alone time" for your child to just be by him/herself.

[ ] Do your part in your child's being available and on time for any appointments
with the other parent. If a schedule change must be made, be sure that
the appropriate parent and your child is notified as soon as possible to
avoid anyone feeling slighted or rejected.

[ ] Do not try to punish the other parent by putting him/her down or by
creating problems regarding "visitation." If you are angry, attempt other
ways of handling it. In trying to punish each other, parents usually
end up hurting their child far worse then the other parent. Attempt to
discuss, cooperatively, any problems regarding visitations or child rearing
issues without putting your child in the middle.

[ ] It is important for both parents to be parents and not for one to be
the "disciplinarian" and the other the "entertainer." Or, don't allow one
parent to be the"good guy" and one the "bad guy."

[ ] Allow your child to brag about or build up the other parent even if you know
it to be an exaggeration or even untrue. If it is important for you to set
your child straight on certain matters regarding the other parent, do so gently
and kindly. The truth may be difficult for your child to live with and may
feel quite threatening. Your child needs time to "see" matters clearly.
Don't force it the issue. A neutral position may be to simply say, "You really
love your Mother/Father, don't you?" Or, "I don't know if I like your
Mother/Father taking you to __________ , but it sounds like you had a real
good time and I'm glad."
* * *

C. Paul Wanio, PhD, LMFT, is a psychotherapist in private practice in Lake Worth and Boca Raton, FL. He can be reached at He is also a contributor to the new ebook, How Do I Tell the Kids about the Divorce? A Create-a-Storybook™ Guide to Preparing Your Children -- with Love! by Rosalind Sedacca, CCT. To learn more, go to For additional articles on child-centered divorce, visit

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